News & Notes 639:Agriculture in India
Agriculture in India
Following the last column on ‘Growing Rice in Auroville’, we take a look at agriculture in India and the challenges it faces. India has become the world’s fastest growing economy, but what does this mean for the over 800 million people who live and work in its rural areas?
Statistics never yield the full picture, but when taken with the necessary grain of salt, they can reveal important facts. Some figures to ponder: India’s economic growth rate is presently ca. 7.5 percent (this does not take into account the loss due to environmental damage, estimated at almost 6 percent!). In contrast, agriculture – which is still the primary livelihood of at least half of India’s people, though generating less than a fifth of the GDP – has a growth rate of less than 2 percent. And ironically, the rate of inflation is higher in the rural than in the urban areas! Income from farming is estimated to be a third or less than that from non-farming occupations. Thus the gap between urban and rural India continues to widen, and today, 80 percent of India’s officially ‘counted poor’ live in rural areas.
Farming is under extreme pressure from many sides. Agricultural land is increasingly lost due to environmental degradation, urbanisation and industry. Several reasons have led to the average size of landholdings decreasing, so much so that today 90 percent of India’s farmers are in the small and marginal category (‘small’ means 2 hectares – 5 acres – or less, ‘marginal’ one hectare or less). Together they cultivate over half of the country’s overall cropped area. When droughts hit the already precarious lives of the farming population, the result is termed ‘massive rural distress'. Basically there are three ways of trying to cope: The first is by taking up some non-farming work, mostly in the informal sector; many rural households today combine several livelihoods and show astonishing resilience even within the most limited opportunities. As we witness in our own surrounding, today’s rural economy is a lot less ‘agricultural’ than it used to be. The second reaction is migration to the cities, mostly ending up in slums, traumatic for the individual and disruptive for families and communities. And the third is the desperate step of farmers ending their lives to escape the debt trap, which has resulted in an epidemic of suicides (over 300,000 over the last decade) which as yet shows no sign of abating, and increasingly also affects Tamil Nadu.
“Agricultural growth is twice as effective in reducing poverty, compared to growth in other sectors” declares the World Bank's “World Development Report”. And the FAO has now officially recognised that small farming is the key to feeding the planet, not the unsustainable agri-business, for multiple reasons. According to Samaj Pragati Sahayog, an NGO based in Madhya Pradesh, “public investment should be the key to make rural India come alive again, taking into account climate resilience and creation of quality employment”.
Until now, 55 percent of India’s cultivated area has no access to irrigation. Last year’s droughts affected almost 40 percent of India’s farm land and half the country’s population (302 districts across 18 states were officially declared drought-hit!). Rain-fed agriculture, which produces around 40 percent of India's food grains, pulses, millets and oilseeds, is in urgent need of drought-mitigating measures, such as watershed & water conservation, afforestation and other natural resource management programmes. If wisely used, the ‘100 days of yearly employment’ guaranteed to all rural households by the MGNREGA scheme – the ladies from the villages we often see digging in kolams and along road sides – could be put to excellent use…
Reports of the drastic decline of soil fertility in many states of India are now official, as is its main cause, indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, until now heavily subsidised by the government. Healing and restoration of the soil (and undoing the damages of half a century of 'Green Revolution’) is being recognised as essential, along with sustainable farming practices. Among these is a return to crop diversity, and promotion of traditional millets and pulses (both more resilient, and more nutritious than conventional rice, and ideal for inclusion into lunch schemes to reduce pervasive under-nutrition of children, girls and pregnant women). Funding for agricultural research – now only 0.7 % of the agricultural GDP – needs not only to be boosted but to be shifted to sustainable methods. In rural areas, public organisations such as KVK (Krishi Vigyan Kendra) and ATMA (Agricultural Technology Management Agency) can and will have to become active agents in promoting a new era of organic farming.
The BJP-led government in its new Annual Budget has expressed its aim “to provide socio-economic security to every Indian, especially the farmers, the poor and the vulnerable” (!), and pledged to spend 359 billion rupees on doubling the income of India's 120 million farmers over the next five years, through measures including a crop insurance scheme and better access to markets. In the same context, it is admitted that from the direct food subsidies meant to be distributed through the public distribution system, nearly 54% of the wheat, 48% of the sugar and 15% of rice, are lost as ‘leakages’ and sold on the open market… It seems clear that along with all outer measures, a deeper transformation will have to bring forth the solutions, and the ‘resurrection to a higher and truer life’...